(8) Understanding the Bible

The Bible is a very complex book. For one thing, it is not a single book but a library of many different books, from different authors writing at different times and in various cultural situations. God has spoken not only “at many times,” but also “in various ways.” (Hebrews 1:1) Some of the books are legal documents; some are historical records; some are poetry; some are prophecy; some are apocalyptic; some are stories; some are personal letters. What all this means is that the Bible should not be approached as a ‘sacred text’ that must be taken literally at every point. Nor should verses be plucked out at random with no regard for genre or context. God does speak to us personally in this way sometimes, but it should not be our normal approach to Bible study! We must always begin with the fundamental meaning of the text: what the author originally intended to communicate, and how its first readers would have understood it. (There may be more layers of meaning, especially in poetic and prophetic passages – but they will still be linked to the basic one).

In most cases it’s obvious which type of literature is which; but there are a few exceptions. Is the book of Job history or poetry? Is the book of Jonah the historical account of a real event in the life of the prophet – or a prophetic story written by the prophet? Are the opening chapters of Genesis to be read in the same way as the Gospels? Christians have genuine differences of opinion on these questions. Even if recognising the overall type of literature is fairly straightforward, we still have to be aware that the biblical writers – just like any other people – often employ verbal techniques such as metaphor, exaggeration and humour, in order to make their point.

And yet the Bible is not difficult to understand. “The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.” (Psalm 19:7) Its basic message is accessible to anybody; we don’t need to be especially intelligent, or well educated, or able to understand Hebrew and Greek. Admittedly some parts are harder than others, but as we become more familiar with it and get to know God better, even the difficult passages begin to make more sense. Nobody can ever claim to understand the things of God fully; it is always possible to go further (Psalm 119:18,34,73). And so even those of us who know the Bible very well find that the Holy Spirit can still show us new things each time we read it, taking us deeper into an understanding of God and His purposes (Colossians 1:9,10).

The relationship between the Old and New Testaments

Christians have always struggled with the Old Testament. Even in the first century, Paul had to remind the church in Rome that “everything written in the past was written to teach us.” (Romans 15:4) But if the Old Testament is to be of value to us, what are we to make of its primitive laws, arcane rituals and bloodthirsty stories?

Is the popular conception true, that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament? The Old Testament seems to be full of cataclysmic judgements (the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues of Egypt…) and harsh punishments for what we would consider trivial offences (such as the death penalty for gathering firewood on the Sabbath), while the New Testament contains the famous statement that “God is love” (I John 4:8). But the reverse could also be said; the Old Testament contains many references to God’s love (e.g. Deuteronomy 7:7-9; Jeremiah 31:3), while Jesus had a lot to say on the subject of Hell (e.g. Matthew 25:41; Luke 12:4,5). The fact is, that God has two sides to His ‘character’: kindness and sternness (Romans 11:22). Both His wrath and His love are evident throughout the Bible, and it is only against the backdrop of His wrath that His love can be demonstrated. Only after narrowly escaping destruction for worshipping the golden calf could Israel begin to understand what it means for Him to be “the LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of their parents to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6,7). The God who must punish the wicked (in order that His justice may be satisfied) will in fact go to any lengths to postpone or avert that judgement (Ezekiel 18:23; Jonah 3:10). The ultimate resolution of this dichotomy is the death of Jesus, where God diverts His wrath onto Himself so that the wicked can be spared (Romans 3:25,26).

The other disparity often believed to exist between the Old and New Testaments is in the nature of the relationship between God and his people. Surely the Jewish covenant was based on law, not grace? After all, the first five books of the Bible seem to consist of little else but commandments and instructions! Whereas all Christians (should) know that we are justified by faith in Jesus (grace), and not by the things that we do (“law”). But on closer examination, the distinction becomes far less clear-cut. For the Law was given, at Mount Sinai, to a people who had already been rescued from Egypt – not because they were particularly holy or good, but purely because God had chosen them and loved them (Deuteronomy 7:7,8; 9:6). That’s grace in operation! And the New Testament contains a great number of commands, both in Jesus’ teaching and in the apostolic letters, that Christians are expected to obey.

Nevertheless, there are differences between the Old Testament and the New. The Old Testament explains and illustrates mankind’s basic problem: our estrangement from God. No attempt is made to hide the ugliness of much human behaviour, or the sins and flaws of its heroes. It does not, in itself, contain the solution to this problem – although it does lay the foundation for it (in the sacrificial rituals), and gives hints and promises of something better and more effective (e.g. Jeremiah 31:31-34). The message of the New Testament is that this ‘unfinished business’ has been completed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. So we should not see a conflict between the two Testaments. Rather, the imperfections and limitations of the old revelation were intended to awaken a yearning for what was to come. To compare them is like comparing a candle with the midday sun (II Corinthians 3:9-11). Both give light; but now that the sun has risen, the candle can be put away.

Reading the Bible as a story

So the Bible is not a collection of proof-texts, all of equal importance and authority (and some of which contradict each other). It tells a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is a long story and contains many chapters, some of which have closed and should not be re-opened: for example, Israel no longer has a mandate to exterminate the inhabitants of the Promised Land, and since Jesus’ death a material Temple is no longer required. Most obviously, the rules of the New Covenant are somewhat different from those of the Old Covenant. Sacrifices (Hebrews 10), food and hygiene laws (Mark 7:14-19), and circumcision (Galatians 5:2-6) have been laid aside; the moral laws, on the other hand, have been made more demanding (Matthew 5:21-48). Like a farmer who does different things depending on the season and the crop (Isaiah 28:23-29), God acts in different ways at different times and expects slightly different responses from people – not because He is capricious or has changed His mind, but because His grand plan of salvation demands it.

Numerous schemes have been proposed over the years as a framework to help us to relate the different sections of the Bible to one another. ‘Covenant theology’ (which dates from the Reformation) notes that God has made a succession of covenants (with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, etc), which are all (with the exception of the first covenant with Adam) expressions of God’s grace towards mankind. Thus covenant theology emphasises the unity of the Bible and the continuity between Israel and the Church, while recognising that there are differences between the various covenants. On the other hand, ‘dispensationalism’ (first promoted during the 19th century) divides Biblical history into a series of separate periods, in each of which God makes a covenant with a particular group of people and no others. So dispensationalism makes a major distinction between Israel and the Church, and applies Old Testament prophecy to Israel only.

A more modern way of looking at the Biblical story is to see it as a ‘five-act play’. The five acts are:

1) Creation (Genesis 1 & 2)

2) The Fall (Genesis 3-11)

3) Israel (the rest of the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period)

4) Jesus’ life and ministry (the gospels)

5) The Church (the rest of the New Testament, and down to the present day)

There is continuity between the five acts, because they are all part of the same story, and some characters and principles continue unchanged all through. But because of the development of the story, some actions that were appropriate in Acts 2 or 3 are no longer applicable in Act 5. (Just as, in The Lord of the Rings, the Ring is guarded and protected during the first part of the story, but must be destroyed at the end) Because Act 5 is still going on, the New Testament letters are the most directly relevant part of the Bible for us today, with the Gospels providing the immediate backdrop. The Old Testament gives the historical and prophetic context in which the New Testament can be understood. The whole ‘play’ will come to an end when Jesus returns (at which point we will either begin Act 6 – hinted at in the last two chapters of Revelation – or start a new story altogether!).

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